The motivation for TMT is greed and profit?

It is said over, and over, and over… The telescopes exist to exploit the mauna, to extract profit, that they are built for greed. This is the single most repeated myth about the observatories, and it is the most insulting.

Sunset over the shoulder of Haulalai
Sunset over the shoulder of Haulalai

The fact is that the observatories make no profit, they are either government owned or operated by non-profit corporations. Actually the reverse is true, they are very good at spending money, and they spend a lot, observatories are expensive to operate with about $100 million put into the island economy.

What opponents seem oblivious to is in insisting that the telescopes are for profit it that they a being totally insulting. The insinuation of greed is as insulting as the worst things said against them. They repeat the insult over and over and do not care.

People work in astronomy to learn and explore the universe, they consider the pursuit of knowledge to be a noble goal. I have never met someone who worked in astronomy to get rich, the very idea is laughable. Like much of academia astronomy generally does not pay very well compared to some alternatives. Personally I could be making far more money working for some mainland electronics firm, and have a much smaller mortgage.

How exactly would an observatory make a profit? There are no products to be sold, the data from the telescopes is given away for free to anyone who wants to download it. The astronomers who come to use the telescopes pay no fees for the telescope time.

One repeated claim is that there are patents that have been developed here and that these patents are worth millions. This claim is a bit odd as the sort of basic research that could lead to commercially valuable patents is just not done at observatories.

The value of UH-owned patents derived from technology developed just on Mauna Kea was conservatively estimated to be worth $14 million

KAHEA info page on Mauna Kea issues

There is indeed a long list of patents assigned to the University of Hawaii, reviewing this list reveals that the number of active UH patents from technology developed on Mauna Kea is exactly zero. It is a bit of a mystery where that $14 million number could come from.

Most of the telescopes atop Mauna Kea are owned by government, supported by taxpayers, not shareholders. It should be blindingly obvious that there is no profit made on these. these observatories are given a budget and they spend it, anything left over goes back to the general fund.

One way to accurately describe an observatory is an effective method to suck money out of government budgets, back into the community. It is what they do.

The remainder of observatories on the mauna are cooperative efforts of several partners, usually universities and governments, as a result are organized as non-profit corporations. There is a reason for this… Being created as a non-profit corporation provides a convenient legal method of taking care of employees, contracts for services, taxes, and other legal obligations.

Consider the W. M. Keck Observatory, the largest observatory on Mauna Kea. The observatory is run by the California Association for Research in Astronomy, a California registered non-profit corporation. The shareholders are Caltech and the University of California.

California has strict legal requirements for non-profits, as a result financial data is public and published, verified by independent auditors. You can read through it if you want… Hint, they did not payout any profit to their shareholders.

The Thirty Meter Telescope is also organized in much the same way, as a non-profit corporation. The observatory has a wider list of partners as needed to support the larger undertaking, including several governments.

What opponents should realize, and refuse to do, is that those who work at the telescopes do so because they believe in what the telescopes do. For many that mission could be described as honorable or even sacred.

Exploring the unknown, answering the questions asked since mankind had the intellect to ask them. Where did it all come from? Where will it end? The big telescopes atop Mauna Kea have put those answers within reach.

Result: False and Insulting

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

3 thoughts on “The motivation for TMT is greed and profit?”

  1. Great review and examination of the facts Andrew.
    Perhaps the observatories could gather together their financial reports, and present an offer to the protest leaders.
    100% of future profits will be donated to their respective organizations. Even the UH patent royalties.

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